Kissatens and Drainspotting in Kyoto City

I’m not kidding when I say that the first thing I did upon arrival in Kyoto was to go find a manhole card. Just ask the lobby boy! We travelled there in one of my favourite modes of transport, too: the shinkansen (bullet train). It’s only a few hours from Tokyo, a journey made even quicker with fun extras like ekiben (train bento boxes) and ice-cold Highball cans.

We stepped out refreshed and relaxed, ready to take on the ancient capital but unfortunately, the weather wasn’t as sunny as our disposition. Rain was forecast all afternoon which meant we’d later be sitting, vacant-eyed, using hotel hairdryers to dry our shoes and socks. With bags stowed and umbrellas up, we took to the streets, headed for the decidedly not-so-thrilling Kyoto City Waterworks & Sewerage Bureau Main Government Building.

The Kyoto City Waterworks & Sewerage Bureau Main Government Building -- manhole card location
Above: the Kyoto City Waterworks & Sewerage Bureau Main Government Building.

This is definitely not the first destination for most people coming to Kyoto…unless they’re a manholer (someone who collects manhole cards), that is. I mean, Kyoto was the capital of Japan for a thousand years and, as it was spared from bombing in WWII, is a treasure trove of history, culture and tradition. People come from far and wide to see the spectacular temples, shrines, gardens and rivers; we’d get to those eventually, but first I needed to scratch the manhole itch…the…itchy manhole?

We stopped at the entrance to the Waterworks & Sewerage building to admire the drink vending machine. It was stocked with special aluminium water bottles, good for 10 years and perfect for emergency kits. At only 100 yen a pop, I wished they were more widely available instead of the regular plastic water bottles.

Inside, we spotted these little orange ‘manhole card’ flags sitting at what looked like the security guard’s desk. The man behind it was surrounded by towers of document trays and folders holding decades of governmental paperwork.

Kyoto manhole design printed on little orange Manhole card flags

After handing us the cards, he hurried out of the booth and beckoned us to a side door. The three of us stepped out into the rain where he pointed out a manhole cover just beside the crosswalk. This was not his first rodeo—he knew that manholers liked to get photos with the card and drain side by side. Suddenly, he was rushing off, waving before disappearing inside to resume his post.

The crosswalk didn’t have traffic lights so the lobby boy played lookout while I made my little card-to-cover reveal video, umbrella cradled in the crook of my arm. With the mission complete, we decided to get out of the rain for a minute and have a coffee at the kissaten (coffee house) across the street.

minami - traditional coffee house kissaten near kyoto station

A kissaten break

We’d spotted it before we even entered the government building—it had a cosy vibe that beckoned us forth. For those who don’t know, kissaten are old fashioned tea and coffee shops that popped up in the early 20th century. You still see them around, but they’re definitely being surpassed by the chains. The decor is always some flavour of old-fashioned, so you never know what vibe you’ll encounter. This one sported dark wood, brown pleather booths and chandeliers. Classic.

We stepped inside and immediately looked at each other with raised eyebrows—everyone inside was smoking! This is something we haven’t come across for a long time in Japan. Word on the street was that Tokyo was phasing out smoking indoors in the lead-up to the Olympics—but honestly, not sure what’s happening on that front. We haven’t exactly been out on the town this past year.

Being in this kissaten took me back to 2008 when the lobby boy and I first travelled to Japan together. Back then, smoking was ubiquitous and we once accidentally endured a hellish shinkansen ride, deeply hungover, inside a smoking carriage. Fortunately, this cafe door was wide open to let fresh air in as a coronavirus prevention measure.

We checked out the menu for interest’s sake. It featured all the Japanese cafe staples like ‘omu rice’ (omelette with seasoned rice), sandwiches and curry. We were still full from our ekiben so just went for a couple of cafe au lait. I was pleased to see they came with sugar cubes—something I haven’t seen in a minute and a half. There’s always a bit of ceremony or pomp involved in kissaten, too, which I like. Here, the man behind the counter wore a vest (and I want to say bowtie) and carried out his work in precise, measured movements.

The Kyoto manhole design

We took this time to read the card. Turns out the design dates back to 1988—a time when I was still soiling myself on the daily.

The card goes on to say that the design commemorates the 1,200th anniversary of Kyoto becoming the capital in 794. It was a few years ahead of the 1994 anniversary, but that’s some great forward planning!

The emblem of Kyoto City sits in the center surrounded by a repeating pattern of “Gosho-cart” wheels. These carts were once used as a means of transport for aristocrats on their way to the Imperial Palace and you can see them on display during Aoi Matsuri, one of Kyoto’s most famous festivals. Lastly, the pattern is also designed to be non-slip, to help you get around Kyoto fall-free. Lovely!

After our coffees, it was time to check into our accommodation. We set off once more into the rain, to begin our Kyoto exploration (which would include a few more manhole cards, too!).

The details:

Manhole Card Address: Kyoto City Waterworks & Sewerage Bureau Main Government Building Guard Room
Nearest Station: Kyoto Station (a few minutes walk)
Ask: “Manhouru kado ga arimasuka?” (マンホールカードがありますか?)
Manhole Location: all over town.
More info: here, on Kyoto City’s website (in Japanese)

*note: this information may change; always best to check here.

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